Manjhi – The Mountain Man

Director: Ketan Mehta |  Year : 2015

Oh Gehlore ki goriya

Chali bu humre sang ho

Tohri khatir rachi be dagariaa

Pahunche wazirganj ho

Phagunia ho Phagunia..

Bas gayi tu mere mann mein

Ab tu hi meru duniya

Phagunia ho Phagunia..

 

We all know the story of Dasrath Manjhi. A poor man’s wife in some remote village of Bihar dies due to lack f medical attention, because the way to the hospital goes round a mountain taking hours to reach. The man chips away at the mountain singlehandedly for some twenty years with a chisel and hammer and craves out a path that cuts the travel of 40 miles to some 4 miles.

So when we go to see Manjhi – The Mountain Man what would we like to see? Maybe how he manages to do it…his physical challenges and he tackles them. But perhaps there is something else we would like to see more. It is only a mad man who can take up such an enterprise… maybe the director could show us a multi-sectional view of that madness?

To my mind, Ketan Mehta gets it right by making the love story, the passion that Dasrath feels for Phaguniya, the pivot of the narrative. The hallucinatory flashbacks of many erotically charged moments with Phguaniya gives us a sense of the junoon that is driving Dasrath on this madcap enterprise. The fantasy sequences with the earthy and luscious Radhika Apte may seem gratuitous, but without that kind of poetry ho would anyone survive the dry and draining stint among the rocks?

Mehta also gets the tone and scale of the film right. The rusticity of the locale and the exchanges between characters ring true. ( Shooar ka bachcha, mein tera baap bol raha hoon.) All the supporting characters, especially the family of Dasrath, his father, and later his young son and daughter look so disturbingly real, you cannot remain untouched by the heart-rending poverty and caste oppression against the backdrop of which the central event is taking place. And we must not forget taht we chnace upon Dasrath’s stubboorn streak, when as a child he refuses to bea binded labour of the vilage mukhiya like his father.

manjhi-the-mountain-man-2

Among the current lot of directors in business I think it is only Mehta who can integrate the social reality into the narrative cogently and comment on it seriously without losing a beat. Mehta could have made a ‘ 127 Hours’ kind of film focusing on the man versus mountain battle , or could turn it into an arty ‘ Old Man and the Sea’ kind of saga which would have impressed most critics. But Mehta’s motives are more sincere, and his artistic vision more astute. This is not a feel-good Lagaan. In spite of Dasrath Manjhi’s heroic achievement, it is a sad story. Manjhi has managed to cut through the mountain, but not the world of government apathy and corruption. Early on in the film, we see Dasrath gifting his wife a replica of Taj Mahal. But unlike the Taj Mahal, the path that Manjhi carves , is as much a labpur of love as an act of anger and avenging. That’s why, Indira Gandhis’ slogan of ‘ Garibi Hatao’, the government legislation against untouchability and the Naxalite violence are the necessary ingredients of Manjhi’s story that Mehta wants to tell.

The back and forth shifting of time periods might seem disorienting, but let’s face it, cutting of the path through the mountain over twenty years must have been boring, prosaic work. Mehta didn’t want to falsify the narrative to make it more dramatic than it really was. He has also tried to give us a sense of reality…how he earned a little money by transporting goods for traders, how he built a little shelter for himself and how he cooked for and fed his little children up there for a while. There are a few dramatic moments involving a snake bite, another where he drinks from a dirty mountain stream and chews leaves to assuage hunger and thirst, and a Murakami moment where he catches minutes of blissful rest at the bottom of a dry well. But there is an overall sense of reality that guides the narrative.

manjhi-the-mountain-man-1

The film might lose a bit of narrative steam here and there as the basic arc of the story is known to us. But what kept me riveted was the absolutely spot-on performance by Nawazzudin Siddiqi. After his fabulous turn in ‘Badlapur’ here was another character he has totally internalized. He is delightful as the passionate and playful lover in the early parts of the film, though in a template we have perhaps seen him before. Thankfully the director provides him many points of inflection till the end of the film for his talent to shine through. It is not just him chipping at the mountain. There are of course scenes of his battle against hunger and thirst, and the fury of the elements; but there are also scenes of his interactions with the Naxalite leader, the political establishment in Wazirganj and Delhi , his father and his children. We see him turn more stoic and cynical as he grows older. I especially loved the scene where after the Violent retribution handed out to the village mukhiya by the Naxalites, the friendly journalist asks him if he thought what had happened was right, and he replies, “ Why ask me such questions? What do I know of such things? I don’t even know any more why I am doing what I am doing.”

Matching him in stride is Radhika Apte who has become simply incapable of giving a performance that is less than captivating. The earthy physicality and the rustic eroticism that she infuses her character with is very vital to our buying Manjhi’s passionate obsession with her even after she is dead.

Oh mohre sajanvaa bas itna hai kehnaa I Tera rang ohhdaa tera rang pehna I Mere tann pe sajne lagaa I

Teri baahon kaa gehnaa, she sings in one of those fantasy sequences and gives us the goosebumps. Sandesh Shandilya’s lilting folk-based tunes add to the magic.

Everyone in the supporting cast, from Tingmashu Dhulia and Pankaj Tripathy to the actors who play Manjhi’s father, son and daughter live the characters they are playing and help us in visualizing the bleak social canvas on which this supposedly heroic episode is being painted.

At one point in the film, the well-intentioned reporter admires Manjhi for his sense of purpose and rues how he has given up his dreams of doing journalism of significance and had become a dalla of the politicians instead. Manjhi retorts, “Why don’t you bring out your own newspaper? Or is that harder than chipping path through the mountains?” The journalist does manage to come out with his own paper and the message of optimism is not lost. But neither can we lose sight of the reality of injustice that still persist all around us and the powerful political class that thwarts decent human behaviour and any noble action with cynicism and calculated chicanery at evert step.

That to my mind makes the film radically different from what we usually get to see even among the better specimens of mainstream cinema today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>